Friday, April 8, 2011

Tough Day For A Cynic

The great thing about being a cynic is that it's really hard to be disappointed, because, hey, isn't that what cynicism is all about?

TigerBlog has been called cynical on occasion, and he's not offended by it.

Allison Binns, on the other hand, was filled with youthful optimism, which appeared to be on the verge of crashing around her and leaving her bitterly disappointed.

Binns was the manager of the men's lacrosse team 10 years ago, back when the end of the 2001 NCAA championship game got to be too much for an optimist like her.

And so it was that, while the Princeton team was in its huddle prior to the start of overtime, Binns walked away, past TB and into the tunnel at Rutgers Stadium, unable to watch anymore.

As she walked past TB, he asked her where she was going, and she explained that she couldn't take it. Relax, TB told her. Princeton was going to win.

TB isn't sure exactly how he knew that. Maybe he's more of an optimist and less of a cynic than he likes to let on. Or maybe he'd seen it happen before.

Regardless, when the 2001 championship game got to overtime, TB was sure Princeton was going to win. In fact, there wasn't one second when he thought otherwise.

It's not like he didn't have reasons to suspect that there might be a problem.

For starters, Princeton had an 8-4 lead 15 minutes earlier, at the end of the third quarter. And, less than a minute earlier (in game time, at least), Princeton had a one-goal lead and possession of the ball in the Syracuse end.

Even after a famous turnover (more on that in a minute), Princeton still had the lead and the nation's best defense - in fact, one of the great defenses in college lacrosse history - as Syracuse called timeout.

And yet, then-freshman Mikey Powell managed to run through that defense and tie the game at 9-9 with just 16 seconds left, and so it was the Orange who had all the momentum heading into overtime.

TB remembers seeing Bill Tierney, the Princeton head coach, as the players came to the sideline. He held up both hands, palms out, as if to say "relax, it's fine, this is exactly how we planned it."

In reality, Princeton was luckier that it was in the game early rather than late.

Syracuse had hammered Princeton three straight times, by scores of 16-4, 13-7 (in the 2000 NCAA final) and 14-8 earlier that season, and the Orange figured to have a big psychological edge at the beginning of the game, not the end.

But Princeton came out firing, building a 4-0 lead that was 5-3 at the half and 8-4 at intermission. At no point of the game would Princeton trail, and that was imperative.

Given how the previous meetings had gone, if Syracuse had gotten the lead early, it would have been a "here we go again" feeling for the Tigers.

But now, heading into the overtime, Princeton's attitude seemed to be "hey, we would have signed up for this before the game; now let's go make it happen" rather than "how did we give the lead away?"

Oh, and the turnover?

Winship Ross was a shortstick defensive midfielder, which is one of TB's favorite positions in sports. When you have great ones, it makes your defense twice as good, because the natural advantage that opponents have of being able to match up their best offensive players against shortsticks is neutralized. At the same time, there's no glory to the position, which doesn't lend itself to big stats or individual honors.

Princeton hasn't had many shortsticks better than Winship Ross. He was like having another longpole on the field, and he was a huge reason for the Tigers' success. TigerBlog named him to the Princeton men's lacrosse all-decade team.

And yet, his legacy almost became the one moment when he took the ball into the SU box and then back out, with 34 seconds left and the Tigers up by one. Because Princeton had the lead in the final two minutes, it had to keep it in the box, and Ross' mistake turned the ball back over to the Orange, leading to Powell's tying goal.

Both teams had chances in the overtime to win, but SU never got off a shot. A turnover gave Princeton possession with a little more than a minute left in the OT, and the Tigers cleared, got the ball behind the goal to Ryan Boyle and celebrated after an easy pass-and-catch from Boyle to B.J. Prager led to the game-winner.

TigerBlog remembers the celebration mostly for how Tierney collapsed in tears on the grass, overcome by the emotion of having won a championship with his two sons - Trevor and Brendan - on the team. TB stood about five feet away from Tierney at the time but never came any closer, figuring that this was a moment of solitude if ever there was one.

And Allison?

TB isn't sure if she made it out of the tunnel to watch or if she just stood in the tunnel and waited to see the reaction.

That game was nearly 10 years ago, and the members of that team will be recognized at halftime of the game tomorrow between the Tigers and the Orange on Powers Field at Princeton Stadium.

Syracuse comes into the game undefeated and ranked No. 1, and Princeton comes into the game trying to figure out who's healthy enough to play.

TB though Princeton was a legitimate NCAA championship contender this year, and he still maintains that that would have been the case had the team that started fall practice managed to stay healthy through this season.

Instead, it's been one injury after another, and that - and the nation's second-toughest schedule, behind Syracuse's (and that should flip-flop after this game) - hasn't helped. Princeton is 2-5, though it did win in four overtimes last week against Brown.

But the season isn't lost yet. Princeton can still make a run at the Ivy League's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament or an at-large bid should that not work out, though there is little margin for error remaining.

Still, TB isn't going to give up hope.

He's too optimistic of a person for that.

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